I’ve been seeing a lot of “binders” in recent newspaper and magazine articles dealing with the recent Presidential debates. For examples:

Time magazines October 19 issues carries the article titled, “Romney’s Binders: The Meme Women Love to Hate - How one little phrase became a potent political symbol.

There was another article in the same issue titled, “Obama and Romney dish out jokes, Not Jabs, at Annual Al Smith Dinner,” followed by the paragraph:

"At the outset, host Al Smith IV, the director of the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation -- first acknowledged women in the room and said, “It’s good to see who’s getting out of those binders.” It was a quip that proved the proliferation of what’s become a new meme, after Tuesday’s debate when Mitt Romney explained that while serving as governor of Massachusetts, he was provided with “whole binders full of women” to help him fill his Cabinet.

In the article of New Yorker magazine October 19 issue titled “Obama on “The Daily Show”: A Gaffe is a Gaffe,” there comes again “Binder full of women”:

“When he (Romney) said, on Tuesday night, that as governor of Massachusetts he got help from women’s groups in staffing his administration - “they brought us whole binders full of women”-he was trying to come across as enlightened on gender issues, but managed to give the opposite impression.”

My favorite Maureen Dowd also quotes “women in binders” in her articles, “Pampered princes fling Gorilla dust” (October 20) and “Of Mad men, Mad women and Meat loaf” (October 27) on NY Times:

“Obama’s contempt for Romney gleamed through as Mitt got all O.C.D. with Candy Crowley about the rules, and rambled on about his weird retro worldview, where women in binders have to bound home to make dinner, - - where we just tell “our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone.”

“Mitt hopes Americans are ready for some rules — and binders. He is baked in the fuddy-duddy dad image from the era when white men ruled and the little women toiled over a hot stove.”

Oxford Dictionaries defines ‘binder’ as:

  1. a cover for holding magazines or loose sheets of paper together.

  2. a substance used to make other substances or materials stick or mix together.

  3. a reaping machine that binds grain into sheaves.

  4. a bookbinder.

However, the word, ‘binder’ seems to be becoming a ‘new meme or symbol’ as the authors of both of the above articles say, containing different meaning. What does it mean in those contexts?

  • 2
    No different meanings. Nor any different from the standard binder common in all offices. It's just the context and the creative use that's different.
    – Kris
    Oct 20, 2012 at 3:49
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    The joke is that Romney unintentionally confessed that he didn't know any qualified women offhand (even though his lieutenant governor in Massachusetts was one) — that he was cluelessly living in a male-only world. Bill Maher satirized this by pretending to be Mitt Romney making a phone call to an aide: "Bob? Get me everything you can on women."
    – Robusto
    Oct 20, 2012 at 11:47
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    I think it's seriously stretching language to call this a meme. MacMillan's you never had it so good and Wilson's pound in your pocket are still recognised by at least some people decades later, but Romney's "revealing gaffe" will probably be forgotten within weeks of the current presidential election media coverage ending, if not before. Oct 20, 2012 at 13:25
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_binder
    – mgb
    Oct 21, 2012 at 22:35
  • Trick was simple. I was too much absorbed in the phrase “binders full of women,” which I fancied as a binder binding or skewering a bunch of living women and aghasted, forgetting to read the subsequent phrase “ to help him fill his Cabinet.” Oct 21, 2012 at 22:45

2 Answers 2


The original meaning was that Mr Romney was brought folders containing women's dossiers/resumes. So "a cover for holding magazines or loose sheets of paper together" was the meaning for this word.

At the current time the meaning of the meme is rapidly evolving, as most political situations do.

  • 2
    @YoichiOishi See my answer: Mr Romney was brought folders containing women's *dossiers/resumes. It's metonymy of the woman's resume for the woman herself. Oct 20, 2012 at 0:47
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    @YoichiOishi Mark has it right. But part of the joke(s) is that binders hold paper, but Romney spoke as if they contained actual women. He obviously didn't mean that, but it's just another thing people have seized on to mock him. Oct 20, 2012 at 0:57
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    @YoichiOishi: The context was people who would be members of his cabinet. So the binders contained information (such as resumes or biographies) of qualified candidates. If you were trying to hire someone for a job and you received lots and lots of resumes, you might say "My mailbox is full of qualified applicants." Obviously you don't mean the actual applicants are in your mailbox. Oct 20, 2012 at 1:14
  • 1
    @Mr. Shiny and New. My confusion arose from that interpretation. I took it literary as “a paper cover binding living women,” – which is impossible, without complementing “their dossiers / resumes” that Mark Beadle suggested to the phrase. But I thought it must be a sort of metaphor. Oct 20, 2012 at 1:25
  • 1
    @YoichiOishi the impossibility of a literal interpretation is a good summary of the joke itself - it was obvious what he meant, but he said something painfully easy to intentionally misunderstand.
    – rsegal
    Oct 21, 2012 at 22:25

What Mr. Romney probably meant to say was that he had received "binders" (files) of women candidates to fill his cabinet posts. Which was a good thing to say. But when he referred to "binders full of women," it hearkened to acts in nightclubs, where women are sometimes brought in e.g. boxes, then "exposed" half-dressed for the prurient pleasure of men, a sexist thing to "say."

It was more a "malapropism" than anything else. But during the 1960s, Mitt Romney's father was laughed out of a Presidential race for asserting that he had been "brainwashed" (rather than say, deceived), into supporting the war in Vietnam.

Sometimes these things run in the family.

  • 1
    This is mostly right. However, I think a lot of the ridicule came from the implication that for Romney, women were essentially things found in binders that others brought to him, rather than human beings that he actually was personally acquainted with. What's inarguable is that the statement was weird and awkward, not a normal way to talk about human beings. This invited the listener to figure out for themselves what was actually in his head.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 14, 2014 at 1:13
  • @T.E.D. has it right - best summary/answer here so far, IMO.
    – Drew
    Jul 14, 2014 at 3:20

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